AUTHOR’S NOTE: I thought it pertinent to preface this article by stating that I recognize that it is problematic to write a piece on the experiences of women, male privilege, and the use of space by men given that I am a self-identified male. That said, I am a staunch feminist and hope that you will forgive my chromosomal situation and preference for checking off “M” instead of “F.” Nobody’s perfect, right? – Philip Mak
If you haven’t yet heard of man-spreading, you’ve probably encountered it on your morning commute. As any scorned rider of public transit will tell you, people suck – especially when it comes to personal space. Whether it be putting their backpacks in the seat next to them or blaring their music loudly, the TTC is a nightmare on the best of days. One social offence that has received international attention recently is man-spreading; or, the act of sitting with one’s legs in a wide “V” that invades the seats on either side, infringing on other riders’ space. As the name would suggest, the perpetrators of said behaviour more-often-than-not are men.
Man-spreading came to the attention of the mainstream Western media late in 2014 when New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced they would be posting signage encouraging riders to practice courtesy and manners. Given that the average seat on the city’s mass transit system is 17.5 inches and that ridership has doubled in the last 30 years, occupying more than one’s fair share of space is not only disrespectful but also impractical. On 2,500 subway cars as of January 2015, the signs read, “Dude… Stop the Spread, Please – It’s a space issue.”
While New York can take credit for garnering the most buzz for the campaign against man-spreading, the issue was already being addressed with signs in Philadelphia and a social media movement in Istanbul, Turkey. Also, there have been numerous Tumblrs created to call out men on the behaviour, including Move the Fuck Over Bro, Men Taking Up Too Much Room on the Train, and Save Room for Cats.
Since the announcement of the MTA’s campaign, man-spreading has received significant attention on social media in cities like Chicago, London, and Toronto. The Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE), widely considered a men’s rights organization, created a widely-circulated petition on change.org in response, urging the public to fight the ban on man-spreading. Describing any potential plans to curb the behaviour as sexist due to the gendered implications of the term “man-spreading,” they also posit that it is painful for a man to keep his legs too close together due to having testicles. The Sun quoted CAFE spokesman Geoff Stone as saying, “People are complaining men spread their legs too much. We all have testicles between our legs, so there’s a reason why we don’t cross our legs as much. It’s sexist. It’s male-bashing.”
“2014 was a decent year for feminism.”
The petition, which has attracted 1,257 signatures to date, has become a lightning rod for media. An article by Mic has rounded up 13 of the most absurd reasons men have given for signing CAFE’s petition including, “It is a basic human right to have non-squished genitals,” “I wouldn’t tell a fat chick to not sit down cause she’s too fat,” and “Men have a high center of gravity, broad shoulders and narrow hips. Because of this, we’ll tip over if we sit with our legs together.”
While the “war on man-spreading” may be framed as sexist and dangerous to male reproductive health, both of those arguments are false. Firstly, any man can anecdotally tell you that sitting with one’s knees shoulder-width apart or even cross-legged is not painful – your balls will sit over or under your thighs just fine. Need these men be reminded of the main mode of transportation prior to subways and automobiles? Horses. While the rider could spread their legs as wide as they liked, their testicles were in a much more precarious position. Secondly, man-spreading is not sexist because, as CAFE’s Geoff Stone himself admits, the majority of perpetrators are men. Why? Male privilege.
“The idea that the term ‘man-spreading’ is sexist is completely and utterly untrue”
2014 was a decent year for feminism. While the hashtag #IDontNeedFeminism was popular among women who enjoy advertising their glaring lack of education, positive steps were made through Beyonce declaring herself a feminist (and giving the movement a relevant, palatable face to an entire generation of young women), Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations went viral, and Pakistani human and women’s rights advocate Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. While reprehensible, even the physical violence of Jian Ghomeshi and verbal misogyny of Julien Blanc allowed for societal discussions of consent, women’s sexuality, and the abuse of power by men.
This brings us back to male privilege. Wikipedia defines male privilege as “a term for social, economic, and political advantages or rights that are made available to men solely on the basis of their sex. A man’s access to these benefits may also depend on other characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, and social class.”
CTV News featured a tweet by Toronto resident Davis Carr regarding man-spreading in their write-up on the topic, leading to Ms. Carr receiving numerous responses – many of which were men referring to her as a “c*nt.” Carr notes that, as a woman, she must constantly try to take up as little space as possible so as to avoid harassment and a potential altercation. Men, particularly heterosexual ones, generally do not even have to consider these things and can exist in a public area without regulating their behaviour — that is privilege. “The idea that the term ‘man-spreading’ is sexist is completely and utterly untrue. Sexism is a system of gender-based group privilege. You can’t be sexist (or racist, for that matter) against a group that’s is continuously and repeatedly privileged in a society. To argue otherwise is exactly an example of how sexism continues to propagate itself.”
“So, where do we go from here?”
Carr’s sentiments on male privilege were echoed by Mic’s senior editor, Elizabeth Plank. Plank did some “man-spreading” of her own, sitting on the New York subway with legs spread wide, only to find that people stared, glared, and took photos. She reinforces her experience with research stating that women hold their arms and legs closer to their bodies. By contrast, men occupy more room by holding their arms five to ten degrees away from their bodies and their legs apart at a 10 to 15 degree angle. Women are socialized from a young age to play into this double standard of space use, taught to keep their legs crossed and arms close. “Researchers have found that taking expansive body postures doesn’t just make people feel more entitled, it also makes them more likely to steal, cheat and fail to respect traffic laws. So man-spreading can breed bigger problems than just crowded subway cars: It reinforces attitudes and behaviors that are harmful for society as a whole.”
So, where do we go from here? It’s an unfortunate fact that while well-meaning, many men are socialized into man-spreading and are oblivious to the fact that it is a micro-aggression to those around them – especially women. Is the term “man-spreading” itself too gendered and direct, as the CAFE would claim? Well, no. It is an undeniable fact that man-spreading is mostly performed by men and equating it with strollers and purses, as they attempt to do, is flimsy logic. As Carr tells us, “Too often women are afraid to be direct and use general terms instead. Man-spreading calls out acts for what they are: gendered phenomena and an issue of privilege.” Signs on the subway show that we, as a society, agree that abuse of space like this is unacceptable. It sends the message to our children, particularly our young boys, that you should be respectful of those around you. Is that really such a ballbuster?
Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below whether you’re strongly for or against man-spreading. Or share your thoughts on our story “Spreading The Word On Man-Spreading” with us on Twitter.